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The Awesomest 7-Year Postdoc or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Tenure-Track Faculty Life | Guest Blog, Scientific American Blog Network

The Awesomest 7-Year Postdoc or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Tenure-Track Faculty Life | Guest Blog, Scientific American Blog Network

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7/22/13 7:20 PM The Awesomest 7-Year Postdoc or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Lo…ure-Track Faculty Life | Guest Blog

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By Radhika Nagpal | July 21, 2013 | 21
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Scary myths and scary data abound about life as a tenure-track faculty at an “R1!
university. Scary enough to make you wonder: why would any smart person want to
live this life?
As a young faculty
member at Harvard,
I got asked such
questions a lot. Why
did you choose this
career? How do you
do it? And I can’t
blame them for
asking, because I am
scared by those
myths too. I have
chosen very
deliberately to do
specific things to preserve my happiness, lots of small practical things that I
discovered by trial and error.
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7/22/13 7:20 PM The Awesomest 7-Year Postdoc or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Lo…ure-Track Faculty Life | Guest Blog, Scientific American Blog Network
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So when asked by graduate students and other junior faculty, I happily told them the
things that worked for me, mostly in one-on-one meetings over coffee, and a few
times publicly on panels. Of course, I said all these things without any proof that they
lead to success, but with every proof that they led me to enjoy the life I was living.
Most people I talked to seemed surprised. Several of my close friends challenged me
to write this down, saying that that I owed it to them. They told me that such things
were not done and were not standard. That may be true. But what is definitely true, is
that we rarely talk about what we actually do behind the scenes to cope with life.
Revealing that is the scariest thing of all.
I’ve enjoyed my seven years as junior faculty tremendously, quietly playing the game
the only way I knew how to. But recently I’ve seen several of my very talented friends
become miserable in this job, and many more talented friends opt out. I feel that one
of the culprits is our reluctance to openly acknowledge how we find balance. Or
openly confront how we create a system that admires and rewards extreme
imbalance. I’ve decided that I do not want to participate in encouraging such a world.
In fact, I have to openly oppose it.
So with some humor to balance my fear, here’s goes my confession:
Seven things I did during my first seven years at Harvard. Or, how I loved being a
tenure-track faculty member, by deliberately trying not to be one.
I decided that this is a 7-year postdoc.
I stopped taking advice.
I created a “feelgood” email folder.
I work fixed hours and in fixed amounts.
I try to be the best “whole” person I can.
I found real friends.
I have fun “now”.
I decided that this is a 7-year postdoc.
In 2003, at a party, I met this very cool guy. He was on the job market for faculty
positions and had just gotten an offer from MIT Sloan. I was on the job market too,
and so we instantly hit it off. I had recently completed my PhD in computer science
from MIT; it had already felt so hard, just proving myself as worthy enough. I also
had a 4 year old kid and a little toddler. I really wondered how I’d emotionally survive
tenure-track, assuming anyone would even offer me the job. So I asked him. How did
he feel about doing the whole tenure track thing? Having to prove oneself again after
the whole PhD experience? The answer changed my life, and gave me a life long
He looked at my quizzically, and said “Tenure-track? what’s that? Hey, I’m signing
up for a 7-year postdoc to hang out with some of the smartest, coolest folks on the
planet! Its going to be a blast. And which other company gives you 7 year job
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security? This is the awesomest job ever!”
In 2004 when I came to Harvard as a junior faculty, I wrote it on my desk.
I type it in every day. For all seven+ years I have been at Harvard. No joke.
It is an incredibly liberating point of view. If I’m not here for tenure, then there are a
bunch of things I do not need to do. For example, I don’t need to spend my seventh
year travelling doing the tenure talk circuit (I did not do this), or make sure I invite
and get to know personally exactly 18 folks who might be my letter writers, or be on
organizing committees so everyone important knows me well, or try to get nominated
for awards as fast and as young as possible (I just turned 42). Frankly most of this is
not possible to actually do!
But the sad part is seeing how completely miserable people will allow themselves to
get trying to do it. I don’t like being miserable. And why should I be? When I’m
surrounded by some of the smartest and coolest folks in the world! Just
brainstorming with the faculty and students at Harvard is an incredible experience,
and being friends with them is icing on the cake. And to be paid to do that for 7 years?
Heck, no industry job was offering me that kind of job security! I figured 7 years is a
long time. Enough time to make a detailed plan for my next career.
I decided that this was a great job, that I was going to take it with both hands, and
that I was going to enjoy my 7 years to the fullest. And I took explicit steps to remind
myself of this decision every day.
I stopped taking advice.
I hate to say this, but people lie. Even with the best intentions. If you ask them what is
important to succeed as a junior faculty member, people will tell you everything they
did that they think helped them succeed. Plus everything they wish they had done.
And all the things their friend did too. They deliver you this list without annotation, a
list which no single person could ever accomplish. And while this list sends you into
shock, followed by depression, followed by a strong desire to quit (because heck I’m
never gonna be able to do all that) — the truth is that that is the last thing this person
wants. They want you to succeed! And so with the best of intentions, they advise you
on how to fail.
An extreme case of this happened to me in my early years, when I went to a Harvard
event for junior women faculty. To make a long story short, several senior women got
up and explained how we needed to do all the things the male junior faculty were
doing, but then also do a whole second list of extra things to compensate for the fact
that there is huge implicit bias against women in letters and assessments. And there I
was, with two young kids, already worried how I was going to have to be twice as
productive as the men in order to compete with half as many working hours. And
these women were telling me I’d have to be four times as good as the men per hour to
survive! These women had the best of intentions. But I came back to my office, lay on
Vldeo of the Week Vldeo of the Week
Grasshopper: vertical takeoff and landing
Inage of the Week Inage of the Week
7/22/13 7:20 PM The Awesomest 7-Year Postdoc or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Lo…ure-Track Faculty Life | Guest Blog, Scientific American Blog Network
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the couch, and decided to quit. Then I remembered rule 1: I am not here for tenure, so
none of the advice actually applies to me. Since then I just refuse to go to these sorts
of events, and there are plenty of gender-neutral versions of that experience. Instead I
run a therapy couch for those male and female junior faculty who attend.
The second problem is that people gave me advice in the form of lists. Example lists I
got: give invited talks in many big places, publish lots of journal articles, join
prominent conference committees so you get to know senior people personally,
volunteer in University committees to get to know Harvard faculty who might be on
your tenure case, etc.
It is easy to give (and receive) advice that is a list, even when the things on the list are
not the most important to do. No one said to me, “Hey, my advice is to win the
McArthur grant. Then you’ll get tenure for sure.” Frankly, that’s much surer advice
than the list. Just harder to swallow. Given that any time spent on a list item is time
not spent on research (and many of these list items are super time consuming), I
don’t feel like a lot of advice I got was sound.
Finally, it doesn’t help that computer science (and university faculty in general)
suffers from an extreme lack of diversity. People claim to care about about work-life
balance, while only really understanding and practicing workaholism. Most people I
know are incapable of giving advice I can follow, without getting a divorce or giving
up my kids for adoption. Unfortunately that’s still true.
I created a “feelgood” email folder
I have an email folder named “feelgood”. It’s a little silly, but effective. Every time I
tell my colleagues about this one, they first laugh, and then seriously consider making
one for themselves. Here’s what’s in it:
The eloquent and touching email my MIT advisor wrote to our group about how
proud he was to see one of his students choose to go into academia. The email from
the Harvard faculty member who offered me the job, and then went on and on saying
how excited she was that I was joining. The first paper acceptance I got. The first
award I got. The random email I got from a famous professor who I totally idolize (oh
my god, they know my name!). The junior faculty member who said they’d save my
emails and reread them every time they felt down. The student who told me I should
be awarded a degree in psychology, because I let them vent and cry on my couch and
that apparently made all the difference. The email from the Turing award winner who
thought my promotion was good but not surprising (could’ve fooled me!). The photo
my husband sent me while I was traveling at a conference, of how my 6-year old
daughter tried to help her dad by packing lunch for her 3-year old brother
(unsuccessfully of course). Some seriously funny emails my faculty buddy sent me to
cheer me up. Basically pointers to moments when I felt happy.
One of the hardest things for me about this job is that there are so many ways to get
rejected, and those linger a lot longer than the feeling of success when something
Trilobite art
7/22/13 7:20 PM The Awesomest 7-Year Postdoc or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Lo…ure-Track Faculty Life | Guest Blog, Scientific American Blog Network
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good happens. Grant rejections, harsh paper reviews, bad teaching reviews — all ways
of having someone reject your results without acknowledging the huge amount of
hard work that went into this not-quite-perfect outcome. Even in a 7 year postdoc, it
is still hard.
People advised me, “Don’t take it personally”. Yeah. In the bin of not-useful-advice for
me. I put in the work and I care about it. It is emotionally taxing and that is personal.
The very idea that we can’t admit that openly is ridiculous. Anyways, that’s when I
take 15 minutes and browse though my “feelgood” folder. And a little bit of that
feeling of happiness comes back. Just reading the emails transports me back to those
different moments. Its fleeting, but effective. And its real. Good things happened to
me, and I have no reason to think that good things won’t happen to me again in the
future. Helps me counter the feeling of rejection, and move constructively towards a
The feelgood folder is just one of my many “patches” (and thank you Netflix for
streaming BBC Masterpiece and Bollywood). As far as I can tell, other seemingly-
perpetually-positive faculty have coping mechanisms too; some write blogs, some go
grab a beer, others hit the gym. And not all coping mechanisms are graceful. I’ve cried
alone in my office and I’ve sobbed a couple times in senior faculty’s offices. Its life.
Not being emotional, not being frail, not being human — these are parts of the scary
image of the faculty member. Luckily, I’m in a 7 year postdoc! Far lower standards.
I work fixed number of hours and in fixed amounts
Not long after I joined Harvard in 2004, the then President Larry Summers publicly
told the world his opinion of why women do not seem to succeed to the top. One of
the several hypotheses he put forth was that they weren’t willing to put in the 80
hours/week that was expected of faculty.
That week I went home and tried to calculate it out. After all how many hours did I
“work at work”? Mind you, I had a toddler and a 4 year old, so I felt I was working
*all* the time. Here’s my calculation:
Ideal scenario: On days where I picked up my kids from daycare, I was fully at work
9-5 and then if all went well I could maybe squeeze in another two hours 10-12pm
(while effectively being “on” non-stop from 7am-midnight, and having kids in 9-6pm
daycare). On days where I could stay late at work, I would work 9am-9pm straight but
then spend no time with family. On weekends (when there is no daycare, only two
overworked parents) I couldn’t manage anything work related but we’d shop, cook,
clean, in preparation for the next week. And this ideal case still means being awake
and “on” from 7am to midnight, all 7 days.
So the generous calculation is: (2pickupdays * 10 hours) + (3latedays * 12 hours) =
When I did this calculation, I realized that I was basically getting in about 50
7/22/13 7:20 PM The Awesomest 7-Year Postdoc or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Lo…ure-Track Faculty Life | Guest Blog, Scientific American Blog Network
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hours/week on a good week! And if I wanted to get to 60 hours/week I’d need to have
12 job-only productive hours per weekday, and if I wanted to get to the 80 hour/week
that would mean ~11 hour work days all 7 days of the week. That’s crazy, and
*completely* unreasonable. With that expectation, the only way to survive would
mean one of us quitting having a career, and the other quitting being a parent.
And at that point I decided that 50 would just have to be enough.
But of course less hours mean you get to do less work. And that’s hard to accept for
the uber-ambitious person that I am, surrounded by lots of uber-ambitious colleagues
and hence lots of peer pressure to take on ever more work. So eventually I came up
with an easier solution. I decided on a priori “fixed amounts” in which I was allowed
to agree to do things. Once the quota is up, I have to mandatorily say no.
I travel at most 5 times a year. This includes: all invited lectures, all
NSF/Darpa investigator or panel meetings, conferences, special workshops, etc.
Typically it looks something like this: I do one or two invited lectures at places
where I really like the people, I go one full week to a main conference, I do maybe
one NSF/Darpa event, and I reserve one wildcard to attend something I really care
about (e.g. the Grace Hopper Conference, or a workshop on a special topic). It is
*not easy* to say no that often, especially when the invitations are so attractive, or
when the people asking are so ungraceful in accepting no for an answer. But when
I didn’t have this limit I noticed other things. Like how exhausted and unhappy I
was, how I got sick a lot, how it affected my kids and my husband, and how when I
stopped traveling I had so much more time to pay real attention to my research
and my amazing students.
I have a quota for non-teaching/research items. Just like the travel, I have
a fixed number of paper reviews (usually 10), fixed number of graduate and
undergraduate recruiting or mingling events, and fixed number of departmental
committees I am allowed to do each year. I also do one “special” thing per year that
might be time consuming, e.g. being on a conference senior program committee, or
being on an NSF/DARPA panel, or being on a junior faculty search committee. But
only 1 per year. As soon as I sign up for that one, all present and future
opportunities are an automatic no (Makes you think a lot before you say “yes”,
no?). Plus, there are things that are really important to me that don’t get enforced
externally. Like making time to meet other women in computer science, and doing
a certain amount of outreach to non-Harvard audiences. If I’m not careful, I end
up with no time for these less promoted events. And if I end up with no time for
these, I end up a very bitter person. I have a quota to prevent me from accidently
getting bitter.
I also have a weekly hard/fun quota There are things that for some reason
are super hard, or bring out your worst procrastination habits. For me, that’s grant
reports and writing recommendations. There are also things that are really fun.
For me, that’s making logos and t-shirts and hacking on my website. If I can do 1
hard thing per week, and 1 fun thing per week, then I declare victory. That was a
7/22/13 7:20 PM The Awesomest 7-Year Postdoc or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Lo…ure-Track Faculty Life | Guest Blog, Scientific American Blog Network
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good week, by a reasonable measure of goodness.
I aim to raise kids as an equal 50-50 partnership. This is a big one and I
don’t want to make this seem obvious — the idea below was born after a long time
of growing arguments and anger and resentment, which neither of us are eager to
remember. Moving on though, we now happily tell our method to all parents.
The basic idea is simple. We play zone-defense during the week: only one parent has
childcare at a time. I do five days morning drop off (7-9am) and two days evening
pickup (6-10pm), my husband does three days evening pickup and no drop offs.
When you are on kid duty, all responsibilities are yours (feeding, bathing, where did
the gloves go, yes I understand you want to cry inconsolably right now for no reason).
But all rules are yours too; the other parent has to stay clear out of it and no
comments allowed. When you are off kid duty, you can schedule the time as you
please, stay late at work or take a tennis class or go drinking with buddies. No
questions asked.
I mostly work those days or schedule work-related social events on those evenings.
This tag-team parenting also means we don’t all get together as a family during the
week usually. So we decided: no job related work on the weekends. No reading or
writing email, no reading grants and papers, no preparing lectures, no conference
calls. The weekend is either for getting organized at home or just spending time
together. We also carved out a chunk of our budget to get household help 3 times a
week, to create more time for us on the weekends to be together as a family. Finally, if
you want to break the rules, then you have to trade: for every evening I cover for him,
he has to cover an evening that week for me. For every weekend I travel, I have to give
him a weekend day off. No free lunch.
The nice thing about the fixed amounts approach is that it made equality easier to
approach in a house with two alphas. My husband worked for industry, but his job
had the same expectations of working all the time, traveling all the time, and
pretending that nothing else exists. This helped us limit how much our careers (or
kids) were allowed to encroach on our lives as a whole. But I also adher to this pretty
strictly for other reasons. I need rest!
I stop working late Friday night and I don’t open my email client until Monday
morning. My students have adapted. They know not to put me in unreasonable
situations like trying to submit a paper last minute. My kids have adapted too. They
like the idea that Tuesday is mommy rules and Wednesday is daddy rules. They know
the weekend is theirs. My colleagues I’m not exactly sure about. I’m afraid they don’t
quite realize how few hours I am willing to give to the job. Oh well, I guess they know
People want you to do everything all the time, and they impress you that the world
will collapse if you don’t. But there are times I wish the world would just bloody
collapse! Because the amount of stuff people keeping adding to the “must be done”
list is outrageous. It is also stunning how little thought society has given to raising
kids with two working parents. People in my work community constantly schedule
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important work events on evenings and weekends, with no apology or offer of
childcare. People in my city government think that affordable public education ages
5-12 until 3pm is sufficient, and the rest doesn’t need organized effort or collective
funding. Yet somehow we declare victory with Title IX? Ridiculous.
So in spite of all the practical ways I counter these issues, it still makes me very angry
and frustrated. Which brings me to the next point.
I try to be the best “whole” person I can.
It was the end of a month where a lot of things had gone haywire: rejected grants, a
poorly prepared problem set that should have never seen the light of day, a sick kid
whose fever I tried to mask with Tylenol and send to school, and so on. It was all bad,
and I was embarressed and depressed. I was doing poorly on every account, in front
of people who quite reasonably expected so much more from me. As I was having this
nervous breakdown moment and feeling very isolated, I called one of my old friends
just to chat. Unaware of my condition, she told me a story about her uncle who had a
smart young daughter, and how he takes off work at 3pm to take her to be part of a
special math Olympiad, and how he goes with her on weekends for classes at a
community college, and how he is doing everything within his power to provide his
daughter access to the best opportunities.
And in that moment it suddenly dawned on me what was taking me down. We
(myself included) admire the obsessively dedicated. At work we hail the person for
whom science and teaching is above all else, who forgets to eat and drink while
working feverously on getting the right answer, who is always there to have dinner
and discussion with eager undergrads. At home we admire the parent who sacrificed
everything for the sake of a better life for their children, even at great personal
expense. The best scientists. The best parents. Anything less is not giving it your best.
And then I had an even more depressing epiphany. That in such a world I was
destined to suck at both.
Needless to say it took a lot of time, and a lot of tears, for me to dig myself out of that
hole. And when I finally did, it came in the form of another epiphany. That what I can
do, is try to be the best whole person that I can be. And that is *not* a compromise.
That *is* me giving it my very best. I’m pretty sure that the best scientists by the
above definition are not in the running for most dedicated parent or most supportive
spouse, and vice versa. And I’m not interested in either of those one-sided lives. I am
obsessively dedicated to being the best whole person I can be. It is possible that my
best whole is not good enough for Harvard, or for my marriage; I have to accept that
both may choose to find someone else who is a better fit. But even if I don’t rank
amongst the best junior faculty list, or the best spouses list, I am sure there is a place
in the world where I can bring value.
Because frankly, my best whole person is pretty damn good.
7/22/13 7:20 PM The Awesomest 7-Year Postdoc or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Lo…ure-Track Faculty Life | Guest Blog, Scientific American Blog Network
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I found real friends
I found friends at work who think I’m special just the way I am (and I avoid the
others). My work friends are awesome, but not “perfect”. They are *not* senior people
in my field. These are folks I “gel” with. These are folks who think I have good ideas,
regardless of this year’s crop of paper acceptances and rejections. These are folks
whose ideas I like, making every coffee conversation worth it. In my awesomest-7-
year-postdoc, I am here to have an awesome time. So what better way than to spend it
with people I truly have fun with!
In our community there is a lot of pressure to network and impress the perfect
friends, e.g. senior faculty in your field who will sit on your grant panels, review your
papers, and eventually write your tenure letters. These people are supposed to tell you
your worth. Yikes! Good thing I wasn’t on tenure-track! When I started out, it was
hard to simply walk up to such people and say, hey, instantly like me without any
proof beyond my graduate thesis. Exposing myself to groups of people I didn’t know
and had no reason to trust, just so they could shoot me down, didn’t seem like an
effective way to learn. Plus, I get enough anonymous feedback as it is. Often it isn’t
clear to me that the expert reviewers in my field have made a sincere effort to
understand what it is I am trying to do, if I am saying it poorly. Four years later with
some work under my belt, and a clearer idea of who I was, I did make many good
friends in my field. But they will never replace my first friends who thought I was
special from the start and who believed (on some inexplicable faith) that I would do
good things.
My most valuable and constructive professional criticism has come from these friends
— friends who were not in my field, but were in my “court”. These friends are the ones
who read my proposals and papers for my first four years at Harvard. Even though
they weren’t from my field, they caught 90% of the bugs in any argument or writing I
did. They cared about me personally, so they put in a lot of time and effort to deliver
honest critical evaluations of my work and my decisions, in a language I could
understand. They helped me deal with the inevitable rejections and insults. These
people were instrumental to my success, when I had few accomplishments and little
experience to recommend me. These are the people who will still instantly care about
whatever I care about at that moment, and give me their valuable time. These are the
people who will proofread this article.
I get by with a little help from my friends…
I have fun “now”
In 2012 when I got tenure, people came up to me and said “Congratulations. Now you
can do all the things you’ve always wanted to, take risk, take an easier pace, and have
fun”. My answer was: “I’ve always done what I wanted to”. And its true. But its not
because I have extra courage. Rather, by demoting the prize, the risk becomes less.
People will say: you can do xyz after you get tenure. But if I am not here for tenure,
then that doesn’t apply! I don’t have to worry about being so brave. I’m allowed to
7/22/13 7:20 PM The Awesomest 7-Year Postdoc or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Lo…ure-Track Faculty Life | Guest Blog, Scientific American Blog Network
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have fun now.
I have fun doing research I like at my natural balance for risk tolerance (even if it’s a
7-year-postdoc, I can’t take or handle unbounded risk in research). I take 1-month
long vacations in the summer without touching my email (and I’ve ignored the advice
that my away message would make people stop taking me seriously). My lab goes on
an annual ski trip (the first trip was four years ago, and my lab’s productivity doubled
that year). I enjoy working hard, but not at the expense of my principles or my
personal judgment of what is actually important. Fun is essential to my research. It is
essential to me wanting to have this career.
A faculty member once told me that when people are miserable and pushed to their
limits, they do their best work. I told them that they were welcome to poke out their
own eyes or shoot a bullet through their own leg. That would definitely cause huge
misery and might even improve their research. Ok, yeah, I only thought about saying
Many who consider, or even try, the tenure-track faculty life feel like they don’t fit the
stereotype. For some, the stereotype is so far, that one feels like an alien. The two
options I hear most are getting burned out (by trying to live up to the rules) or opting-
out (because one can’t play the game by the rules). I guess my hope is to add one
more option to the list, which is covering your ears and making up your own rules.
I am not saying this approach or this list is a recipe for success. As one of my wise
colleagues said, we know very little about what makes people actually succeed. Rather
this is the recipe by which I have, and I am, having fun being in academia. And if I’m
not having fun, I will quit and do something else. There are lots of ways to live a
meaningful life.
I realize that my own case is special in many ways. It is a rare privelege to get a
tenure-track faculty position at a place like Harvard. And engineering is a discipline
with many reasonable career alternatives. And very, very few mothers get to raise kids
with a feminist husband. Nevertheless, it seems to me that at all levels of academia,
almost regardless of field and university, we are suffering from a similar myth: that
this profession demands – even deserves – unmitigated dedication at the expense of
self and family. This myth is more than about tenure-track, it is the very myth of
being a “real” scholar.
By my confession, I hope to at least make some chinks in the armor of that myth.
Maybe even inspire others to find their own unorthodox ways to cope with the
academic career track, and to share them. And maybe, just maybe, I can inspire my
senior colleagues to have an honest discussion about what expectations and value
systems we are setting up for young faculty. I know that I do not want to participate in
encouraging a world anchored by that myth. In fact, I have no choice but to openly
oppose it. Because I can’t live – I can’t breathe – in that world.
7/22/13 7:20 PM The Awesomest 7-Year Postdoc or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Lo…ure-Track Faculty Life | Guest Blog, Scientific American Blog Network
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Tweet Tweet 195 342
So. Tenure. What’s that? Here’s to another 7 years! And then we’ll see.
Other Things to Read
Many of the ideas in this article were inspired by discussions I had with friends and
things I’ve read. There have been some really terrific articles on this subject. Here’s a
few that I find really useful. I often revisit them.
Uri Alon: Work-life Balance in Science: A Theory Lunch Video
(~30 minutes, parts 1-4, especially part 4 “Sunday at the Lab” spoof song)
The Alon lab has put together an excellent set of Materials for Nuturing Scientists.
Anne-Marie Slaughter: Why We Still Can’t Have It All, The Atlantic, July 2012
Ivan Sutherland: Technology and Courage, Perspectives, Sun Microsystems Inc,
April 1996.
Kate Clancy: On being a Radical Scholar, Scientific American Blog, October, 2011

About the Author: Radhika Nagpal is a Professor of Computer Science, in the Harvard School of
Engineering and Applied Sciences, and a core faculty member of the Harvard Wyss Institute for
Biologically Inspired Engineering. She received her PhD degree from MIT in Computer Science. Her
research interests lie at the intersection of computer science, robotics, and biology.
More »
The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.
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7/22/13 7:20 PM The Awesomest 7-Year Postdoc or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Lo…ure-Track Faculty Life | Guest Blog, Scientific American Blog Network
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3:13 pm 07/21/2013
Very cool! And lovely to read, too.
Llnk to thls
3:30 pm 07/21/2013
Great article! I was in the same position a number of years ago
– an assistant professor in a top department, with a wife
starting her own business and two small children. I, too,
treated it as a long, well-paid post-doc and did my best to
balance things, secure in the knowledge that I had other skills
to fall back upon if I did not get tenure. It so happened that I
did not get tenure, but I’m very grateful for the time spent. I
learned many interesting things and spent time with many
fine, brilliant people. I ended up with a different job that I
enjoy, and my kids are now happy and well-adjusted
teenagers. My advice to assistant professors is always to have a
“Plan B”, and decide right away that you will not pin your ego
on your work. This will help you sleep at night.
Llnk to thls
1:06 am 07/22/2013
Well written article… Good points to be implement in life
Llnk to thls
3:12 am 07/22/2013
Your article reminds me a round table discussion with a very
successful scholar. The eager postocs are asking how to be
successful on the job market, while geting the answer
someting like ” You will shine if you are a diamond”. After
that, I learn two things. First, never ask successful people how
they did it. Sometimes they have no idea nor plan on that.
Second, all we have to do is to enjoy the moment even when
we are actually our seven-year postoc. You are right, we all
need real friends to support each other. Therefore, I would like
to thank my dear friend for sharing this article with me !
Llnk to thls
8:34 am 07/22/2013
Thank you for this amazing article! I am filing it and printing it
to make sure I will always be able to refer back to it – I’m
starting my PhD journey next month and while that’s a
different “animal” than the 7-year postdoc (love that
description), I have a feeling much of it will apply. I am excited
to get started, and at the same time a bit terrified. Your article
makes me less terrified and more excited.
7/22/13 7:20 PM The Awesomest 7-Year Postdoc or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Lo…ure-Track Faculty Life | Guest Blog, Scientific American Blog Network
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Llnk to thls
9:00 am 07/22/2013
Thank you for writing this! A very welcome read for a 4-year-
postdoc (and mother of 2).
Llnk to thls
10:55 am 07/22/2013
Thanks for this. The author’s ability to embrace joy in life
shines through this piece. We all need reminders of the
importance of striving for wholeness rather than for some
external measure!
Llnk to thls
11:22 am 07/22/2013
Wonderful post. Thanks so much!
Llnk to thls
11:27 am 07/22/2013
Thank you, thank you, thank you for this. It is the first thing
I’ve read about junior faculty life that made me feel hope
rather than depressed and inadequate. I’m up for tenure this
fall and am sharing with everyone I know.
Llnk to thls
11:55 am 07/22/2013
Reading this article should have made me think “She can do it,
and so can I!” but, honestly, it just made me annoyed — yet
again — with the stupid system that is Academia. Let’s review!
1) “I decided that this is a 7-year postdoc” There she was in
2012, a 41 year old mother of 2, now knowing whether she
would get tenure or whether she would have to completely
turn her life around and do something different, probably
involving moving to a different city. Call me crazy but I think
scientists, who have worked very hard for many, many years,
should have the right to have some stability in their life at the
age of 41.
2) “As far as I can tell, other seemingly-perpetually-positive
faculty have coping mechanisms too…” This system is SO bad
that we need to find mechanisms to simply COPE with it.
7/22/13 7:20 PM The Awesomest 7-Year Postdoc or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Lo…ure-Track Faculty Life | Guest Blog, Scientific American Blog Network
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3) “I do five days morning drop off (7-9am) and two days
evening pickup (6-10pm)…” This life requires your kids to be
in daycare for HOW LONG?!?
4) “I’m afraid they don’t quite realize how few hours I am
willing to give to the job.” She works 56 hours a week. In
Norway, around 35 hours is considered a full work week (they
get six week’s worth of paid vacation time too). She works the
equivalent of 1.5 jobs, and that is considered FEW hours.
So what can we do? My first suggestion would be to stop
asking one person to do a two-person job. If you need 80
hours worth of science, you could just bloody well ask two
qualified scientists to do the work! There are plenty of good
people out there. This same completely surreal situation is also
true for other fields such as medicine where doctors work
crazy hours for the benefit of — no one?
To the author: I am not criticizing you — you have several
good points and I see that you are trying to do your best to
survive in a harsh world. This is a call-for-action for changing
this outdated and caustic system.
Llnk to thls
12:29 pm 07/22/2013
If you’re not in it for tenure, then why not make 2x the money
as a CS PhD in industry during those 7 years? Plenty of smart
people to talk to and interesting projects to work on.
The lure of “academic freedom” and tenure must have played a
part in the decision, even if telling yourself it’s not is an
effective coping strategy.
Llnk to thls
12:54 pm 07/22/2013
@rggomes: Perhaps — just *perhaps* — she enjoys teaching
(and the other aspects unique to academic life).
Llnk to thls
1:27 pm 07/22/2013
I am working on an article myself, it addresses grad school and
being tenure track. Academia is an awesome field right now,
but like any other competitive field it i vicious and has lots of
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“snake oil” associated with it.
When I became a professor I knew things would change. I
knew there was another side and there was… I have always
seen myself as a kid and in many ways I still do, but something
changed when I was given the keys to the front door. I always
saw my academic journey as a battle between good and evil. I
was climbing a mountain of knowledge, while leaving bread
crumbs and signs as I saw fit along the way. The game has
fundamentally changed, my responsibilities transcends my
own needs and desires, something I am quickly learning
others have failed to uphold.
Here are some things I notice people do and shouldn’t be
worried about:
-Try to look like everyone else. Stop worrying about the status
quo, the “look” of academics is based off of assimilation, one of
the core theories we are taught to push against. Be yourself.
-Publish for the sake of publishing. Publish with a purpose and
not just for tenure graduate school cred, that is not a good
enough reason, you need something at stake.
-Teach even though you hate it. Get another profession and
save the students and yourself heartache.
-Go through graduate school thinking you need to emulate
those before you. Put your anthropologist hat on and learn
from their actions, again do not assimilate. Let the system
develop around you.
-Think there is a hierarchy to academia. There is a hierarchy,
however they are meant to be broken. Build relationships with
your peers and mentors because they have value to you, not
because of hierarchy. Such relationships will pay off later in
your journey to build an academic community for peer review.
Your peers and students are just as important as your
mentors, they are who will be around in 10 to 15 years.
-Look at your thesis, dissertation or tenure as an approval
from your colleagues and institution. These are handshakes,
you are confirming your desire to be approved by the
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institution, leave if you do not like it there and save yourself
and others time. Find what makes you happy.
-Look for approval from your mentors and peers. Seek
guidance and knowledge instead, your mentors and peers are
there to help and guide you, not approve of you. Learn from
them, but stand your ground.
-Assume your struggle or privilege negates you from
participation. The assumption that your struggle or privilege
negates you from participation perpetuates the exact
principles most in academia say they are trying to work
against, i.e. inequality and discrimination.
-Think your thesis, dissertation or tenure committee needs to
all love your work in order to have it signed off. They all just
need to understand their role within your journey and respect
-Realize that all academics are human at best, they are not all
knowing, even if they say they are. Arrogance runs rapid in
academia, it is up to you to change that perception.
Llnk to thls
3:13 pm 07/22/2013
Thank you thank you thank you for writing this. I’m not a
professor, but I’m a grant PI working at a soft-money scientific
institute (think: take out all of the teaching and university
committee responsibilities, take out the job stability and
possibility of tenure, keep in all the grant-writing, paper and
proposal reviews, conference travel, workshop organization,
summer students, paper writing, seminars — oh yeah, and the
research too).
But there’s enough overlap that this is very much like my life:
rather than worrying about getting tenure, my main concern is
getting enough grants funded to pay the mortgage and
preschool bills. Only I don’t get that 7 years to relax — when
my grants run out and there’s nothing new to replace them, I
simply won’t get paid (no pressure). Otherwise the pressures
are the same: spend time with family and friends, carve out
time to get work done, maybe go on vacation sometimes
(which we have to anyway when our daycare lady goes on
7/22/13 7:20 PM The Awesomest 7-Year Postdoc or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Lo…ure-Track Faculty Life | Guest Blog, Scientific American Blog Network
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I’ve done many of the same things. We handle the kids
differently, but we’ve worked out a way to mostly keep things
sane. Potty-training for the 21 month old is coming up soon,
and that’s a few days off work that will be stressful but worth
the time investment. I have to think very very hard about
traveling to conferences or giving seminars (I’ve just turned
another offer down). I also need to do fieldwork, which is more
time away from the family, so I trade conference time for
fieldwork. I just can’t do both.
The way I phrase it is “sanity is worth its price”. It’s just really
really really REALLY nice to hear another person in academia
saying it and actually living it.
Llnk to thls
3:27 pm 07/22/2013
Thank you for this. I wish you had discussed your spouse
more. Summing the brief mentions, it sounds like he left a
private sector job to follow you and take up childcare duties.
As a feminist, I have no problem with this. But practically
speaking, what’s the chance of most people getting a good
enough offer (e.g. Harvard) to justify a spouse abandoning
his/her career? I understand it wasn’t the point of the article,
but its omission is telling.
Llnk to thls
5:15 pm 07/22/2013
@10 heidamaria: “There she was in 2012, a 41 year old mother
of 2, not knowing whether she would get tenure”
From Prof. Nagpal’s CV it’s clear that she got tenure in 2009.
Llnk to thls
5:16 pm 07/22/2013
Thanks for writing this article and while I hope academics will
take your advice about finding a work/life balance, a tenure
position at Harvard is luxurious and out of reach for most of
your readers.
With more and more work being given to adjunct faculty and
TAS, budgets being slashed across t1 publics and certain depts
in private, I’m not sure how much most of us can take away.
Academia is in crisis across the board, maybe the effects are
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felt a bit less at an ivy league & when you’ve figured out how to
make tenure life bearable.
Race and gender discrimination is especially rampant, and I’ve
been advising many women of color who approach me about a
future in the university to weigh their job options carefully
because its an uphill climb. And if you have a family, it does
set you years back, compromises your earning power (some
recent research backs this up).
Thank you for sharing, though, a lot of advice here will be
great for many career women.
Llnk to thls
5:41 pm 07/22/2013
@Quantumburrito: In the article, she actually says: “In 2012
when I got tenure…” Not that it really changes my point.
Llnk to thls
5:43 pm 07/22/2013
You summed this up so well. If the goal is to survive an epic
struggle for reasonable stability, one that you hope to achieve
by the time your half way through your life-expectancy, then
something is fundamentally wrong with the system. What’s
odd is that you’d think academics would be less inclined to be
exploited workers. Turns out they clamor for it. Strange.
Link to original comment:
Llnk to thls
5:57 pm 07/22/2013
I find these American solutions somewhat corny because they
remind me of the way preschoolers are managed. However,
let’s but that aside. First off, the academic culture you describe
is rather horrid. The point of academia isn’t to spend 7 or
some number of years busting your behind with an eye on
some prize, or some ego trip, and then degenerating into an
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alcoholic because it didn’t work out. I generally don’t bother
making posts that point out very fundamental flaws in the way
some things are run because people seem afraid of actually
confronting these things and continue about their business.
However, I say the following with the utmost serious. The
university is one thing and one thing only, i.e., a community of
people who are interested in developing intellectually. And like
any true community, it’s raison d’etre is the good of each
member. There are of course various positive side effects of
having a truly intellectually well-developed group of people in
a society (and universities don’t quite succeed in this area;
Chomsky will tell you that as will anyone who appreciates the
origins and purpose of universities). Today, universities are to
a large degree dehumanized and dumb. The employees don’t
necessarily know that since they often have a poor grasp or a
teenager’s idea of what being intellectually developed and a
human being means (which at best is cliche). The mindless
publish-or-perish industry, mode 2 science, a pseudo-
intellectual spirit of crypto-anti-intellectualism, arrogance;
these all contribute to a degenerate and obnoxious culture.
This article, despite the fact that it’s ensnared in some of the
badness of the current status quo, is a step in the right. You
have to start somewhere. I hope that slowly there will be a
reawakening in universities and in the world in general to the
meaningful existence not shallow snobery. Technofetishism is
but a symptom of a problem. We must inspire the sense of
wonder for the timeless things, for the truth, that truly
underpins academia. I don’t see it anymore. I see mutual
admiration societies and competition instead of cooperation
and concern for the common good. I say with with year of
academic and industry experience. We’re in a bad place.
Let’s abolish the Nobel Prize and see how many posers will
abandon their posts.
Llnk to thls
6:49 pm 07/22/2013
Thanks to the author for her perspectives. I teach business at a
smallish private university, and its a “second career” for me
after a masters degree and 30 years in industry. Our emphasis
is on teaching and mentoring. Small class sizes and modest
academic research/publishing expectations for professors are
what enable this focus. Tenure comes at the 4-year mark, and
the primary factor is effective classroom teaching and learning
I think this article raises a more fundamental question: “Why
is the academic work environment at top universities like what
7/22/13 7:20 PM The Awesomest 7-Year Postdoc or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Lo…ure-Track Faculty Life | Guest Blog, Scientific American Blog Network
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Add a Connent Add a Connent
You nust slgn ln or reglster as a SclentlflcAnerlcan.con nenber to subnlt a connent.
Cllck one of the buttons below to reglster uslng an exlstlng Soclal Account.
the author describes?” The answer is that the system has
devolved to become bass-ackwards.
What about the students paying rapidly-rising tuition to
“learn?” Note how little the author talked about teaching, and
isn’t that what school is supposed to be all about? But in most
major universities, undergraduate teaching has largely been
relegated to TAs, GAs, new professors, adjuncts, visitors, and
other sorts of surrogates for “full professors.”
Being a tenured professor is now all about researching,
writing, publishing, conferencing, inventing, granting and the
like, and it’s all often justified by the generally tenuous
assertion that this expected activity results in being a better
teacher. We’ve created a self-perpetuating system of PhD
minting, hiring, tenuring, and accrediting that supports this
vicious cycle which creates the burn and churn described in
the article.
Institutionalized big academia has become all about adding
prestige and endowment back to the university instead of
value to the real customer: students.
Llnk to thls
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